Mission Reunions

It’s General Conference time, which means it’s also the time for mission reunions in Utah. There’s no rule which says you can’t have a reunion at some other time or some other place, of course, but this seems to be the custom which has evolved. More power to it, I say.

That is, in principle. In practice, I’ve attended exactly one reunion of my mission–Korea Seoul West–in my life. I stayed for about 15 minutes, then left. I’ve never had any desire to participate in one since.

Why? Long story. While, in the months immediately after my return from Korea, I did get together informally with some other former missionaries that had returned home long before me, it was mainly for purposes of getting some good Korean food. Once my (second) mission president returned to Utah and everything got formalized, I realized that I hadn’t any real interest to keep in touch with these people; that being around them brought back too many shameful or embarrassing or immature or unwarranted feelings and memories. Basically, I needed to get over my mission, and going to reunions didn’t help. So I left the only I ever attended early, and have thrown out invitations ever since.

Obviously, for a great many other returned missionaries, the desire to “get over” their missions simply isn’t there–or, conversely, reuniting with old friends (and enemies) is a big part of any such getting over. To each their own. As I said, I’ve nothing against reunions in particular; on the contrary, I think they’re a valuable part of the culture of the church. Indeed, speaking of reunions sociologically, I’d be interested to read of any studies which have been done of them. Have variables been identified which suggest why some missions can successfully pull of reunions year after year, and others can’t? What does the passage of time have to do with it? Has the church’s increasingly reliance on a non-Utahn, non-American missionary force changed the nature of these reunions, or have they remained the same?

On variable, which is probably too vague to be of much analytical use (but is fun to speculate upon nonetheless), is the degree of cohesion, discipline, even a feeling of “destiny,” which missionaries who serve is some particular place at some particular time may feel. Perhaps that partly explains my own ability to toss invitations to reunite with old mission companions aside: whatever else could be said about the Korea Seoul West Mission, circa 1988-1990, one thing that cannot be said with a straight face was that it was characterized by great dedication, spirituality, sacrifice, and unity of purpose. (And no, I didn’t help at all in that regard.) The idea that “we’re all in this together” is not an easy one to cultivate, and I don’t know if there is any sure recipe for bringing it into existence. Certainly there have been many missions where that idea was intensely felt: my father’s mission (London, 1962-1964), for one.

Dad almost never talks about his mission, primarily because–as I have figured out over the years–it really wasn’t one filled with much success (however defined) or even many teaching moments. Lots of hostility, lots of slammed doors, and the miserable task of cleaning up after one of those periodic “let’s-baptize-every-nine-year-old-kid-in-sight” phases that every mission seems to go through once a decade or so. (Dad probably spent more of his mission talking to angry parents and removing kids from the church roles than he did prosleytizing. D. Michael Quinn overlapped with my father in that mission; he wrote about the “baseball baptism” era in England at length in a Sunstone article some years back. Elder Holland was in that same mission too.) So, you’d think it wouldn’t be a mission characterized by much enthusiasm in retrospect, right? Wrong. Elder Marion D. Hanks was my father’s mission president, and for decades his former missionaries returned like clockwork to Salt Lake City, where–far from your typical potluck–there was a catered dinner and formal church meeting, with Elder Hanks and selected returned missionaries giving “reports.” These reunions were very important to my father…more important, you might say, than his mission itself. Interesting, no?

12 comments for “Mission Reunions

  1. Mark B
    October 1, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    Your experience mirrors mine in some respects. I went to one mission reunion (Japan Kobe) and have ignored all invitations to any others. Part (but just a small part) is that, after two years in Utah, I’ve lived in Chicago and NYC for the nearly 30 years since.

    I think another reason is the number of missionaries and the relatively small number that I knew. (Straddling two mission presidents doesn’t help–the reunions seem to be based on their terms of service, so either reunion would include two years worth of missionaries who never once crossed paths with me.) In contrast, both my parents served in the Canadian Mission (1947-49) and they have continued to gather regularly in reunions, although in ever decreasing numbers as death takes its toll.

  2. Bryce I
    October 1, 2004 at 10:31 pm

    I went to mission reunions while I was at BYU and enjoyed seeing old friends. My wife actually served in the same mission (Japan Tokyo South) as I did — that’s how we met. I got home a year before her. At the first mission reunion where we were both in attendance, I was very interested in talking to her, but I was a bit self-conscious as well. There’s something a bit strange about being attracted to a fellow missionary, even after the calling has ended. I was so self-conscious that I ended up brushing her off, giving her the impression that I was totally uninterested in anything she had to say.

    Fortunately, she’s very forgiving. And now I can have a mini-mission reunion any time I want.

  3. October 1, 2004 at 10:41 pm

    A few more reasons one might avoid mission reunions:
    You still can’t stand the people who irritated you then, and you still never want to see them again. On the other hand, the circumstances that gave you a store of common experience with people you liked are no more, and you find yourself having less and less in common with the people you did like. The size of the subset of people who understand both your mission and your life since quickly decreases and may approach 1.

    In my case, the one and only mission reunion slavishly imitated the former zone conferences. Zone conferences were many things for me, but a big barrel of fun was not one of those things. Why would I want to add another one to my schedule now? Living a couple thousand miles away helps.

  4. Bryce I
    October 1, 2004 at 10:48 pm

    The Bloggernacle (ugh — can’t stand that term) is mission reunion of sorts for me, albeit with some missionaries I never served with. Chad too, Ben Huff, and Nathan Shumate (from Tachyon-City) all served in the JTSM, as did I.

  5. Ivan Wolfe
    October 1, 2004 at 10:49 pm

    I’ve never attended one. Of course, I have two missions to choose from, as halfway through my mission in Denver, the Chicago Mission President sent out a request for some Laotian speaking missionaries, and since the Denver mission had more than it needed, three of us were than transferred to Chicago. (Odd trivia – when we got our letters confirming our mission transfers, two of our letters were signed by Pres. Benson, and the third was signed by President Hunter).

    So, I spent about a year in each mission, and as a Laotian speaking missionary, I didn’t move around much or have many changes in companions (I had one companion for 10 months).

    So, having formed weak ties to two geographical missions, and having had very little interaction with the other “normal” missionaries, I’ve had no desire to attend a mission reunion. I wouldn’t know anyone there.

  6. Bryce I
    October 1, 2004 at 10:49 pm

    That’s Japan Tokyo South Mission, for those of you who missed it.

  7. Jack
    October 2, 2004 at 1:00 am

    I’ve gained over a hundred pounds since my mission over 20yrs ago. I can picture myself having to invent more jokes than Cyrano de Bergerac if I ever went to a reunion.

  8. Jim F.
    October 3, 2004 at 11:35 pm

    Russell, I don’t want to repeat conversations we’ve had before, but I think it is sad when missionaries have not had an experience in their mission that translates into enjoying a reunion. I’m not sure of all of the things that made my experience different than yours. I seriously doubt that the difference was that I was a much better missionary than you were. To some degree, it seems to me that more and more missionaries today have the kinds of feelings about their mission experience that you do as well as the same feelings about missionary reunions. (On the other hand, given the traffic on the SLC-Provo freeway on the Friday night before conference, when mission reunions are usually held, it seems like there are a lot of people enjoying them, too.)

    For me, my mission reunion–which I was disappointed to be unable to attend this Fall–is a time to see old friends and to remember briefly that we were engaged in something larger than ourselves and important. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that we eat Korean food and almost always skip the “fireside” aspect of mission reunions.

  9. Scott
    October 5, 2004 at 8:21 pm

    unfortunately, as time passes, mission reunions become like high school reunions; whats the point?

  10. Jim F.
    October 5, 2004 at 11:20 pm

    Scott, that may be true in many cases, but not in all. I don’t think my reunion has ever been like a high school reunion, and I’ve been going for about 35 years, so the passing of time hasn’t made it more like one.

  11. Jaybs
    October 6, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    As a Non Church Member, but many RM/Elders who I think of a True Brothers & Friends, some of the comments made in posting about not wanting to see people you didn’t get on with, concerns me?

    As a Committed Christian, I may not get on with every Friend in the same way, but I could never feel the way some express, that is against my “Faith” and what I feel my Loving “Heavenly Father” would want of me.

    Your Brother in Christ J

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